Trees and Men

by Seb AOR
First published in ORB 211, Spring 2259

At all times, the peoples of Northern Europe have had a special relationship with trees. We find this relationship in our mythology and in our folklore. But we also find it in the everyday life, a symbiosis between men and trees. Indeed, without trees, there certainly never would have been life on earth. This article aims to put forward this symbiotic relationship between trees and men.

In our mythology, the tree has a central place. How start this article without talking of Yggdrasil, the world pillar, the central axis around which are organized the nine worlds of the multiverse? Yggdrasil, the “Ygg’s horse”(Ygg is a nickname of Odin), who brings us back to shamanism, which had so much impregnated our Nordic religion. According to some Yggdrasil is a yew. In his very good article “YGGDRASIL AND THE INDIVIDUAL”, Heimgeist DCG, had put forward the symbolism which links Yggdrasil with each of us. Two other trees have a paramount place in our mythology. The Ash and the Elm, Ask and Embla, the first human couple. The myth says that one day when Odin, Hoenir and Lodur went for a walk on a shoreline, they find two tree trunks, an Ash and an Elm. They then decided to give life to these trunks. “Spirit gave Odin, sense gave Hœnir, blood gave Lodur, and goodly colour.” This myth shows us that our ancestors were aware that without trees there would never had been any life on earth.

At a religious level, trees were of great importance in our faith. Our ancestors chose woods, glades, groves or forests to celebrate their rituals and to worship divine powers. For them the forest was a magical place. Tacitus said in The Germania: “For the rest, from the grandeur and majesty of beings celestial, they judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the Gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the Gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which only in contemplation and mental reverence they behold…” He also said about Semnones: “At a stated time of the year, all the several people descended from the same stock, assemble by their deputies in a wood; consecrated by the idolatries of their forefathers and by superstitious awe in times of old. There by publicly sacrificing a man, they begin the horrible solemnity of their barbarous worship. To this grove another sort of reverence is also paid. No one enters it otherwise than bound with ligatures, thence professing his subordination and meanness, and the power of the Deity there. If he falls down, he is not permitted to rise or be raised, but grovels along upon the ground. And of all their superstition, this is the drift and tendency; that from this place the nation drew their origin, that here God, the supreme Governor of the world, resides, and that all things else whatsoever are subject to him and bound to obey him…” One may not agree with the fact that, according to Tacitus, our ancestors had no temple, but these statements show the commitment that our ancestors had for trees and forests.

Adam of Bremen’s writes in his description of the great temple of Upsala about a large and evergreen tree (certainly a yew tree) which stood near the temple.”Near that temple is a very large tree with widespread branches which are always green both in winter and summer. What kind of tree it is nobody knows…” This tree was surely considered to be the counterpart of Yggdrasil in Midgard.

How not to mention also the Irminsul of the Saxons– this huge tree trunk that Charlemagne ordered to cut down in 772, in his efforts to eradicate the religion of the Saxons and to impose Christianity on them? Rudolph of Fulda, a monk, to whom we owe the most complete description of the Irminsul, states that the Irminsul was a great wooden pillar erected and worshipped beneath the open sky and that its name, Irminsul, signifies the universal all-sustaining pillar.

Again, we see by these few examples that our ancestors saw the trees and forests as sacred.

The human being had always maintained a very close interdependence with the trees. The Hominids appeared at one of the rare moments in the Earth’s history when the forest environment prevailed. Our distant ancestors lived and grew in the forest among the trees. They lived in harmony with nature, drawing their food and their resources from the forest. The wood was their principal source of fuel and the main building material they had. Our ancestors were closely related to their environment and they treated nature with respect. They worked with it and not against it.

The tree is at the top of the botanical scale. We can compare it to a footbridge connecting mankind and the vegetable kingdom. Just as with human beings, there is some hierarchy in forests. Each forested area may be regarded as a community, with its mature trees, “children” trees, and its “wise trees”, the older trees. And just as in human communities, each member of the  tree community is important,  older trees protecting and “educating” the younger. That is why modern sylviculture, based on monoculture, is a real disaster. For purposes of mass production, men plant huge forest of trees, all of the same species and same age. All these trees fight for space and for the same nutrients because they have all the same needs. And we can observe  that timber  which comes from these kind of plantations is of very poor quality. If we continue our comparison between the composition of a forest and a human community, we realise that if a community was only composed of children, if there were no adults, no seniors to serve as a model, the community could not function or grow properly. In a natural forest, just as in a human community, the ancients, the biggest and the strongest, act as examples and protect the youngest and the weakest. Diversity is also important for a forest as for humanity. Indeed a natural forest is a community made up of a myriad of  botanical and zoological species and micro-organisms which cannot thrive or even survive in the absence of each other.

A symbiotic relationship between trees and humans occurs with colours. In the visible spectrum, the human photo sensitivity is high in relation to the green and low in regard to the red and the ultraviolet, while for a tree it’s the inverse. The sensitivity of this last reflects that of the man. As we don’t perceive green colour in solar light, if trees and other vegetables did not exist, this colour would not be part of our life. Moreover, the green colour has a soothing therapeutic effect on human beings. Just look at the state of stress suffered by people living in cities far from any vegetation.

Another proof of the symbiotic relation which links men with trees can be found in photosynthesis. Indeed, through photosynthesis, trees release oxygen which we need to live and in exchange, they absorb carbon dioxide that we expire. We have here a beautiful example of a symbiotic exchange operating on the principle of “a gift for a gift”. Without trees or without another form of vegetation, there would be simply no life on this planet. By its irresponsibility, by massive deforestation, by pollution and disrespect for nature, humanity condemns itself. A simple example is to look at the danger of the destruction of the rainforest, the lungs of the earth, and that in order to enrich a few people.

To conclude this article, there is an old German proverb which says “If you planted a tree, built a house and raised a child, you have well occupied your life.” It is time that the human being realizes that trees are vital to its survival and to the survival of future generations. Our ancestors understood this interdependence between trees and men. Our myths clearly reflect this. Let us also be aware of this connection between us and the trees! May we give of the trees as much as they give us.

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